A few days ago, a friend who works in PR called me up at 2am, incoherent in his panic. "I'mgoingtogetfiredyouneedtohelpmeout."
"WHAT?" I barked into the phone, me and my signs of early ageing supremely pissed at being roused out of slumber.
"I'm going to get fired, you need to help me out."
"What did you do now?
"Because my *beep*ing moderator for the *beep*ing women's day event for *beep*ing XYZ lipsticks (Okay, I made the lipstick part up because I'm afraid I might get him fired) has bailed on me."
(Replace beep with profanity that sounds like the eating device one uses while eating Maggi)
"Gee. Happy women's day to you too."
"Women's day can take a flying *beep*"
"You might do. They won't be thrilled, but they might just bite."
"Gee, thanks. What woman can say no to such a heart-meltingly eloquent proposal?"
"Please. <Insert popular Twitter celebrity name> was supposed to do it."
"Sigh. Will you promise never to call after 11pm if I say yes?"
"You were sleeping???"
The next morning, I woke up to garish posters extolling the virtues of the lipstick (let's roll with that for now) and how its revolutionary new shades of coral were a befitting ode to women of generations past, present and the future. After reading through no less than 437 words on the vitamin-enriched goodness of said lipstick, we got to the point: I was required to make a speech and moderate a panel discussion on what it means to be a woman. 'I got this,' I tell myself confidently. 'This is easy stuff,' I smirk at a blank Word document as I sit down to write the speech I am convinced will blow the minds of the audience. 'They're going to thank their stars they got me instead of <Insert popular Twitter celebrity name>. And anyway, my hair will look so much better than hers in the official Youtube video,' I think bitchily.
Three hours later, I was feeling decidedly less confident. Turns out, writing about what it means to be a woman is a lot harder than actually being one. When I went to writing school, I was taught that when you write what you know, you're honest. Then why was it so difficult to write about being a woman? After 20 and 7 years of playing the part, did I still not understand the director's vision? Cue drumroll to impending existential crisis.
So I did what any self-respecting writer does-I procrastinated. I made lists of hackneyed phrases and tired clichés sprinkled liberally in women's day speeches. Should I speak about the social construct of gender stereotypes; about always being at a disadvantage? Or should I talk about financial despondency and the epidemic of rape that plagues men across geographies? Or maybe I should open with a period joke and lead into the poor standards of healthcare for women in our country… Perhaps I should go funny and make a sarcastic comment about how leaning in (the right way) could really get women everything they wanted in a man's world. I could talk about any or all of these things and it would be a good speech. The Youtube video (with my shiny, voluminous hair that would make my mum point at the screen, teary-eyed, and mouth, "My daughter" emotionally) would get a respectable number of hits and the comments would be mostly kind.
But there was still something amiss. What does it mean to be a woman? was stuck in my head like a particularly irksome chant. Or the lyrics of Baby Doll Main Sone Di.
Over the next two days, I called up no less than a dozen girlfriends and parroted the question to them. And it made me realise that most of us are cohorts in this cluelessness. None of us know what being a woman really means because we didn't choose to be one, we simply assumed the identity. We know what shared social experiences like discrimination, inequality and debilitating fear feel like, but outside these experiences, how can we know what it's like being a woman when we've never been anything but?
And so I turned to the one friend who probably deserves the part more than any woman I know, but has to audition for it-every single moment of every single day of her life. I'm tempted to say that she chose it; but even that wouldn't be true, because like Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, born as Lakshminarayan Tripathi, is quick to correct me, "I didn't choose womanhood, it chose me. I wasn't born a boy, I was simply assigned their gender." So while she may have had as little a choice in being a woman as my friends and I had, she's definitely chosen to revel in her understanding of it, flawed as it might be.
We've arranged to meet at her boyfriend's office at noon because she "needs her beauty sleep". She lives five minutes away but she's an hour late. And yet, it's difficult to stay angry when she floats into the lobby, all smiles and apologies, and plants a big kiss on my cheek. The office is filled with women and they love Lakshmi, so one more hour passes before we're finally seated at a restaurant and talking.
"Yeh kya women's day, women's day laga rakha hai. Every day is a woman's day. It's a woman's world. We rule the world, baby," she tells me as soon as we settle down.
"Really?" I ask skeptically. "You honestly believe that?"
"Of course. We've forgotten what it's like to be women and love ourselves for ourselves. Or maybe we've been made to forget so that that power to rule could be taken away. Once we relearn, there will be no stopping us," she tells me, as if stating the obvious.
"Think about the Mahabharat. Draupadi had five husbands and multiple children from each husband. Her mother-in-law was married to one man and bore kids from four other men. And yet, they were the most celebrated women of not just their family or kingdom, but of their history. Their honour and value didn't depend on who they were or weren't having sex with. Why does ours? Women weren't meant to be defined, boxed or controlled. We were supposed to be like the wind-moving in different directions and at different speeds, whenever and wherever we felt like"
"Besides, I loved the fashion of that time. What lovely saris and jewellery these women wear in all these mythological shows, yaar. Yep, I definitely think it's time to reclaim that world."
"Hmmm, hmmmm, kya kar rahi hai. Idli kha."
"So you're saying being a woman is about breaking rules?"
"Did these "rules" exist before we did?"
"Then why do you want your starting point to be something so frivolous? You were a woman before those rules were made. You will be a woman long after those rules are gone. Being a woman is about being able to see yourself and, more importantly, accepting whatever you see-unconditionally and with love. I think nature has wired women to be lovers. But somewhere along the way, we just forgot how to love ourselves."
Lakshmi isn't joking when she says she loves herself. I don't believe I've ever met any woman who accepts herself so unequivocally. When she looks into the mirror, she grins. Not the thank-god-I'm-having-a-good-hair-day kind of momentary smile, she smiles the indulgent smile of a lover. "It's come so easily to you, you don't know how to appreciate it." On this, I agree with her completely. I've never had to question my womanhood or justify it. It's something I've learnt to deal with. "I think I knew I was a woman from the time I could start thinking. I've never been anything else. I'm 34 years old now (I have to admit, I think she is doing the 'womanly' thing here and lying about her age) and I'm still fighting for my right to be called one. If I don't accept myself, how will I convince anyone to do it?
To know Lakshmi is to know the stories of her past. She was sexually abused at the age of 6 by "someone close to her" (she won't tell me who) and the abuse continued for several years. It finally ended when she summoned the courage to say no and walk away from it. "The Lakshmi, Durga and Kali in me exploded, I think. I knew that if things had to change, I was going to have to do it myself," she says. "Did it not confuse you, the abuse? You're a "boy" for the world but a woman for yourself. But you're also a child who is being abused…" She has to think about my question for a minute. "You know, it happened so long ago, I can't remember the exact details of what I thought when all of it was going on. But the one thing I remember clearly is that I never, for one minute, felt like I was being abused as a boy. Even then, I somehow knew I was a girl who was being exploited. So in a way, the experience made my belief in my femininity even stronger. When I finally put an end to the abuse, it was the woman in me that gave me the strength to stand up for myself. And that woman in me was so strong that she decided to protect her parents from the pain that the knowledge of my abuse under their protection would cause them…"
Finding the power to say no to sexual abuse empowered Lakshmi in many ways. "I realised I was so powerful, I no longer felt the need to hide my identity. I started celebrating my womanhood and everything that I associated with it. In a way, my whole life has been a women's day celebration!" Up until then, Lakshmi had endured and humoured family, friends and concerned well-wishers as they doggedly tried to reform her and make her a boy, but after the incident, she refused to allow it. "I thought I would be insulting my womanhood by downplaying or hiding it. The woman in me loves makeup and flirty, floaty dresses. She loves the flying pallu of a sari. I decided not to deprive her, and the world, of my beauty. And so I decided to indulge myself instead of the whims of the people around me. In fact, I became so insistent about establishing my identity that I vowed never to wear pants! I stopped wearing pants when I was 16 and didn't start again until 3-4 years ago."
Power is a word that often crops up in my conversation with Lakshmi. I ask her about it. "I often hear that women across the world feel powerless in society. I know that we have a million and one evils that need to be corrected before we can start leading the lives that men feel entitled to, but honestly, I've never felt more powerful than the day I accepted my womanhood. It literally enabled me to change the direction of all the forces around me. My parents, while they never made me feel unloved, worried about my future. I poured my femininity into my dance and became very successful at it. I was told that society would never respect me, but you can see for yourself that's not true." What Lakshmi is referring to is the endless stream of people who have stopped by our table to greet her. Our conversation has been peppered with childhood friends engulfing her in bear hugs, ex-boyfriends who couldn't stop themselves from complimenting her and groups of women asking about her health and family. I realise she wasn't joking earlier, when she'd claimed she was the queen of Thane (a district that borders Mumbai city) and that when Salman Rushdie had wanted to meet her, she'd agreed to grant him an audience only on her turf. "Obviously. It's not like he's my friend that I will travel all the way to Mumbai to meet him. He wanted to meet me for his book, he should travel. He was really nice, but his people were so surprised that I wasn't going to put my life on hold for the grand Mr Rushdie. In retrospect, I feel a little guilty because I guess it may have been a security concern. But mere andar bhi toh aadmi ki ego ko ungli karne ka keeda hai na!"
Which brings us to what is possibly Lakshmi's favourite topic; one that she keeps returning to: Men. Very clearly, she has a love-hate relationship with the species. She shows me photos of men she intends to have flings with, regales me with stories of men who are dying to sleep with her, explains her very non-sexual relationship with her "official" boyfriend of 6 years and, very reluctantly, the men who have broken her heart. "What's so special about that? Everyone-man or woman-gets their heart broken na? She frowns at me when I thwart her attempts at changing the subject." But I'm still unwilling to let the topic go. I know the question I want to ask, but I also know there's no nice way of asking it. "When you sleep with someone, how do you know whether he's thinking of you as a woman or is playing out his gay fantasies?" As soon as I ask the question, I know I've touched a raw nerve. "You can't always know. Sometimes you find out after you're emotionally invested. But I guess that when your own sexuality is under the scanner so often, you get really good at figuring out others'. I usually know when a man is gay," she tells me slowly. "But yes, I've learnt some lessons the hard way." I see her withdrawing from this line of thought and although I have so many more questions on the dynamics of such relationships, I decide to ask just one. "But does it really matter? If the person has accepted you the way you are, does it matter whether they believe you're a man or a woman? It's not like they're asking to change you, right? Is it worth giving up your love for?" For the first time in the afternoon, I see Lakshmi look sad. "Other friends have asked me this question as well. And nothing makes me realise how much for granted you take your identity. I've literally struggled my whole life to establish my right to be called a woman and not have the idea snickered at. My mother, though she loves me, still thinks of me as a boy. And I've had to make my peace with that. I've dated married men whose wives have become my friends because they don't think of me as a 'proper' woman and so I'm not a threat, I'm just their husband's perverted kink that they've learnt to make their peace with. My current boyfriend's wife once told me that she'd much rather have me in his life than have another woman come in and destroy her marriage and family. I saw you make a face when you realised that the cute guy in the BMW was checking me out and not you. Even now, it's difficult to accept that I might be as much a woman as you are, na? But when it comes to love, you want someone who sees you the way you see yourself... Would you be okay with a man who thinks you're a man but loves you enough to have sex with you like a woman?"
I don't have answers to Lakshmi's questions. I don't know if I'd be okay with it because the idea of being perceived as anything other than a woman is acutely ridiculous to me. I've never known an identity that's divorced from my gender. But I do know that I'm guilty of thinking that somehow, my reproductive plumbing makes me more of a woman than her. For an infinitesimal moment, I was insulted at having lost out to a woman who wasn't even a complete woman. Now that she's brought it up, I can't not own up to the shameful thought. "I'm sorry. I'm supposed to be your friend and yet…" Thankfully, she's a much bigger person than me. "Don't be sorry. Feeling shame about discriminating is a good start. I wish more people felt ashamed!" she laughs. "As for the vagina that everybody keeps singing praises about, I'm going to get myself one soon," she tells me excitedly. Although Lakshmi had been wearing padded bras for "as long as she can remember" a few years ago (she won't tell me the exact year because she got it done while her parents were on vacation) Lakshmi got breast augmentation surgery performed. And this year (again she won't tell me exactly when) she is getting sex reassignment surgery done "Men are stuck to a woman's chest at birth and they will be stuck to it till the day they die." She laughs. "After all the lecturing on what makes a woman, you're actually telling me that you want breasts to reel in a man?" I ask her accusingly. "Where is your sense of humour, woman? I got breasts because I wanted to experience what it would be like to have a woman's body. I'm getting a vagina because I want to experience sex like a woman, for once. Maybe I'll realise that I like what I was doing earlier in bed a whole lot better and crib about all the wasted money. But secretly, I will always be happy I did it because when I will look into the mirror, I will see a woman's body-even though I wish I saw a waist a few inches tinier-and it will thrill me to bits. Women like you take your bodies for granted so much and whine about it so often, you will probably never understand!" she sulks.
We bicker some more, until it's time for me to leave. That night, as I look myself into the mirror, I try doing it the way Lakshmi does. I try not to see the dimples on my thighs or the cheekbones that should have been a little higher. Instead, I try looking for the woman who plays no role other than herself. Who hasn't been out in the sun for a very, very long time. I have a sudden urge to smile at her, but she's hidden too deep. But on women's day this year, I'm promising myself I'll look for and find her.
Yesterday morning, my friend called, ecstatically announcing that <popular Twitter celebrity> was back onboard.